Knowing, Living and Teaching the Truth That Frees

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Knowing, Living and Teaching the Truth That Frees

Remarks as Delivered by U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. at the Children's Defense Fund's 21st Annual Freedom Schools National Training, June 5, 2016
June 5, 2016

Servant-leaders in the 21st century civil rights movement

I am grateful to be here with all of you because I understand what the Children's Defense Fund and the Freedom Schools mean for our country. The Children's Defense Fund and its partners are helping to carry the cause of equality, opportunity, and social justice into the 21st century. I also want to recognize the authors, publishers, historians and educators who are here in the room today, and thank you for your work to elevate the history of the Civil Rights movement and to call all of us to remember those on whose shoulders we stand. I'm honored to be here in a room of people who are committed to making the promise of America real for every student in this nation. I'm honored to be here in a room of young people who are committed to being a next generation of foot soldiers in the Civil Rights movement.

As Marian mentioned, I started out as a high school social studies teacher, and one of the things I love about Freedom Schools is the commitment to situate the work of today in historical context. I appreciate the opportunity to acknowledge that we gather here to continue work that began not just with Freedom Schools that started in 1964, but, really, to continue the work of centuries of advocacy for justice and equality. We are here standing on the shoulders of leaders who gave their lives so that we could have a better society that more fully fulfilled the promise of equality of opportunity. We have to situate our conversation tonight in the legacy of the Civil Rights Act and the important statement it represented about who we are as Americans in our commitment to equality and civil rights.

What all of you are about to do, fanning out to more than 80 communities in 30 states, is about building on that tradition by ensuring that our young people have a deep appreciation and understanding that we believe in them. We believe in the possibility that they represent. You will work in churches and school buildings and college campuses, including our vitally important Historically Black Colleges and Universities. You will reach thousands of students – students of color, students living in poverty, students whose communities are seeing the light of hope and opportunity flicker, some communities even where they fear that light has been snuffed out. But your task this summer is to bring them the light of hope and possibility that education represents. The beauty of what you're gathered here to do is to prepare yourselves. Marian and I were talking earlier today about the challenge in the Civil Rights movement of ensuring that young people were fully prepared for what they would face. Their work needed to be grounded in a spiritual commitment to non-violence and in the understanding of the sacrifices that have been made in the past. Their work needed to be grounded in understanding resistance, but that they would need to meet that resistance with love.

The power of knowing the truth

And it is important that you gather at the Haley Farm for this conversation because of the significance not only of Roots but of Alex Haley's whole body of work to a national conversation about justice.

Many of you, like me, were too young to remember when Roots came out, but it's worth noting that when the Roots series was first broadcast, 100 million viewers tuned in to the last night of the series. Think about the profound national conversation that provoked about our history. And yet, despite that profound national conversation, we still see the vestiges of what Marian has called "the birth defects of our nation," the vestiges of the legacy of slavery, the vestiges of the oppression of Native Americans, the vestiges of anti-immigrant propaganda. We see those vestiges. We see their impact in communities. We see what has happened in Ferguson or Baltimore or Flint, Michigan where people didn't understand that they are their brother's keeper – that all of our fates are bound up together.

In all of those places, we have examples of folks missing that what is fundamental to who we are as Americans is a sense of responsibility for each other. If we are to be true to our values as Americans, we need to lift each other up. We need to know that we have a stake in the child in the next town over or the city down the road. All of our children's fates are bound up together and we have to understand that the realities we face today, the challenges we face today, are reflections of a sad element of our history. As Ella Baker urged, "In order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been."

We must confront those challenges that are built into the fabric of our country and we must replace them with love and faith and belief in all of our young people. And we must make sure – and this summer you will do this in Freedom Schools all across the country – that our children have an appreciation of the truth of our history in all its complexity, that they recognize the places where we have fallen short – from our very foundations falling short of our aspirations. And we must make sure they recognize those who fought to bring us closer to those aspirations.

As the Scriptures say:  You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

Because only the truth and confronting those hard truths can make us truly free.

That phrase – the phrase that is the theme of Freedom Schools this summer, "Only the truth can make us free" – is grounded in the spiritual teaching that we are all equal in the sight of God. It's grounded in the idea that each of us has a unique God-given purpose that only we can fulfill. And our task as educators and as Civil Rights workers is to help young people realize their truth, realize their potential, fulfill their hopes and aspirations.

As Fannie Lou Hamer once said, "Nobody's free until everybody's free. When I liberate others, I liberate myself."

Our work as a country, the work at Freedom Schools, is about liberating the potential of our young people and, by doing that, we liberate ourselves as a country. This summer, you will teach students about history and about justice and about social action. You will empower them to make the same kind of difference for the next generation of young people that you are trying to make in their lives.

My own experience

As Marian said, I understand deeply, personally, the importance of this work.

My mom passed away when I was eight. I was at PS 276 in Canarsie Brooklyn, and I lived with my father who had undiagnosed Alzheimer's. Home was this very scary and unpredictable place. I can recall a night when my father woke me up at one in the morning. He said it was time to go to school. I remember clinging to the banister of my house saying, "Daddy, no, no. It's not time to go to school. It's the middle of the night." I didn't understand why he was acting the way he was, so home was this place where I didn't know what it would be like from one night to the next.

As my father got sicker and sicker, I ended up having to take care of paying the bills and I had to figure out how to get food. When I think about the kids who are hungry in the summer, I know what it is like to be hungry and to not know where your next meal will come from. During that whole period, my life could've gone in a lot of different directions. If not for the teachers that I had at PS 276 in Canarsie and Mark Twain Junior High School in Coney Island, New York, I would not be alive today. Maybe I'd be in jail today. But those teachers, they chose to invest in me and to see hope and possibility. Folks could have said, "Here's a young African-American, Latino male student going to New York City Schools with a family in crisis. What chance does he have?" They could've given up on me, but they didn't. They chose to make school this place that was amazing and inspiring and engaging every day. This is what you can bring to students this summer.

My father passed away when I was 12 and then I moved around between different family members. Through all of that, school was the place where I could be a kid when I couldn't be a kid outside of school. I can remember – like it was yesterday – being in Mr. Osterweil's class in Canarsie, Brooklyn. He was my teacher in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. His classroom saved my life. In his classroom, we read the New York Times every day. In his classroom, we performed productions of Alice in Wonderland, Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare in elementary school, because he believed in us and he believed in our potential. We learned about the capital and leader of every country in the world. In his classroom, we went to the ballet and we went to the theatre. He opened up this whole world of possibility that I didn't even know existed beyond my home, beyond my neighborhood.  He gave me a set of tools as a reader and writer that I cherish to this day.

And then as my father got sick, I had a teacher, Miss D, my teacher in seventh grade social studies, and I can recall like yesterday learning about the Aztecs. I completed a project in which I was an Aztec sportscaster, and even though I didn't know what home was going to be like from one night to the next, the most important thing in the world to me was to be the best Aztec sportscaster there had ever been.

I had the privilege, actually, when I was Commissioner of Education in New York to go back and be a principal for a day at that middle school. I went to see Miss D in her classroom. All those years later I walked into her classroom. She said, "I have something for you." She climbed up on a desk and went up to this set of cabinets in the back of her classroom and she rifled through years and years of papers and projects and, then, out came the poster from the Aztec newscast that we did in her classroom with a picture of me as the Aztec sportscaster. She had saved it for all those years. She was that kind of teacher, the kind of teacher who not only teaches but inspires.

That's what you can give kids this summer. That sense of possibility, that sense of hope, that opportunity to be a child, that opportunity to love and enjoy learning. That is the power that we have as educators, and I hope you will seize that moment. That you will see potential in each of your children – because they will test you, as children do. And I hope that you will see, even in the kid who gets in trouble, potential and hope.

You know, sometimes when I describe my experience in school, people think it's a straight line, but it wasn't a straight line. I went to boarding school for high school and got kicked out of high school. I may be the first Secretary of Education to be kicked out – I'm positive – I am the first Secretary of Education to get kicked out of school. But folks didn't give up on me. They gave me second chances. Folks understood that there were lots of things I was angry about as a teenager, but they gave me second chances.

So when that kid gets in trouble in your class, you have got to still see the hope and potential in them. When there is a student in your class who doesn't understand something, you've got to see the possibility in helping them to get it. Too often, when our children struggle – whether they struggle with behavior or they struggle academically – in our society we give up on them or blame them. You can make a difference this summer. You can be that teacher, that voice in a child's life that helps them see that they can be resilient, that they can overcome academic challenges, that they can overcome the challenges that may distract them from school. You can give them that sense of possibility by what you do in the classroom.

The Obama administration is working alongside you

As you do that, know that President Obama, our administration, and the Department of Education are with you as partners. The work that you're doing reflects the deepest aspirations of our administration. The President has tried throughout his time in office to bring us closer to living out the true values of equality and freedom that define our country. He has tried to make us a more perfect union. That is the work you'll be engaged in this summer.

The President has committed to My Brother's Keeper to try to make a difference for boys and young men of color because he wants us to get closer to that more perfect union. The President has committed to investing in early learning and more opportunities for students to have high-quality preschool because he wants us to get closer to that more perfect union. The President committed to higher education and expanding access, affordability, and completion in higher education because he wants us to get closer to that more perfect union. The President's committed to reexamining our approach as a country to criminal justice because he wants us to get closer to that more perfect union.

The President has committed us to work on reentry to make sure those returning from incarceration have the opportunity to get jobs and job training and education and the chance to contribute to their families and their communities because he wants us to get closer to that more perfect union. The President has worked to call the country to reconsider exclusionary discipline policies in our K-12 schools because he wants us to get closer to that more perfect union.

Recently, we launched a national conversation around teacher diversity because we understand that, today, a majority of the students in our public schools are students of color, but only 18 percent of our teachers are teachers of color. Only two percent of our teachers are African-American men. That is a reality we must change.

All students benefit from diverse teachers. Our students of color need to see models of excellence but so, too, do white students. White students need to see models of excellence in teachers and administrators of color. All students benefit from a diverse teacher workforce. All students benefit from the opportunity to participate in diverse schools. And so we work on those efforts alongside you.

We cannot solve all our problems immediately, but each of us can try to make the country a little bit better by what we do. And that's what this summer is about. It won't always be easy and there will be challenges along the way but we've got to do this work confidently – confident about the victory to come. Confident that ultimately we will be a country that better reflects our commitment to equality and democracy.

Pulling together for the cause of truth and freedom

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once declared: "I say to you that our goal is freedom, and I believe we're going to get there, because – however much she strays from it – the goal of America is freedom! … We're going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands."

The "sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the Almighty" – that is the legacy you carry with you into this summer.

So, in the spirit of Harambee, let's pull together – and build the most diverse, educated, prosperous and inclusive America in history.

Let's know, live, and teach the truth about every child's boundless potential – the truth that can make us all free.

It is a privilege to be here with you. It is a privilege to join you in this effort. It is a privilege to work alongside you to try to make ours a more just society.